Died 18 December 2014
Jesuit Father James J. Dressman was born on June 29, 1930, in Covington, Kentucky, to R. Clifford Dressman and Dorothy Steltenkamp. Fr. Dressman was the fourth of five children, two boys and three girls. His older brother Bob entered the Chicago Province in 1942 and died in 2013.
Fr. Dressman attended St. Benedict’s grade school in Covington and St. Xavier, the Jesuit high school across the river in Cincinnati. In his senior year he made a retreat and decided to become a priest. He did not turn to the Jesuits at first, but considered the Dominicans, the Brown or Black Franciscans, or the Trappists. Eventually, he opted for the Jesuits because, he said, of their emphasis on prayer and an active apostolate. In April 1948, he applied to the Chicago Province. He entered the novitiate at Milford, Ohio, that summer.
During his first year of novitiate, he told his novice master that he would like to go to the Patna mission, in northern India, where Chicago Jesuits had long been active. His brother Bob had already volunteered to go to Japan. He repeated the request in the juniorate but nothing more was said of it while he was in philosophy studies at West Baden, Indiana, until his parents one visiting day said, out of the blue, that they had no objection to his going to the foreign missions if that was what he wanted. He repeated this to the rector, who was a province consultor, and Fr. Dressman found himself assigned to the Patna mission.
The plan was that he would teach at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati for a year, while arrangements were made for a visa. But in 1955, the Indian government temporarily stopped issuing visas to foreign missionaries, so the provincial proposed that he go instead to Kathmandu, in Nepal, where Jesuits had recently opened a school. As it turned out, Fr. Dressman would spend most of the next 40 years of his life immersed in the growth of the mission enterprise there.
There were two Jesuit schools, originally a school for boarder students at Godavari some miles south of Kathmandu and subsequently a high school on the edge of the city center. Fr. Dressman’s first assignment was as a teacher and dorm prefect for two years in the school at Godavari. In 1958, he was sent to do theology studies at St. Mary’s College in Kurseong, Darjeeling, in northeast India. In March 1961, he was ordained a priest in Bettiah, in Bihar province, India. In 1962-1963 he did tertianship in Sitaghara, Hazaribagh, Bihar, where his tertianship director was Fr. Louis Schillebeeckx, a Dutch Jesuit, whose younger brother was the famous Dominican theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx. Also in the tertianship group was the Indian Jesuit Tony de Mello, who subsequently became a well-known writer and speaker on Ignatian spirituality. The following year, he transcribed to the Patna Province.
Fr. Dressman returned to Kathmandu in 1963, to the boarding school at Godavari, teaching scripture, moral science, and English literature and doing most of the jobs a boarding school run on a shoestring required: prefecting the dorms, moderating games, supervising the student newspaper, putting on plays, running the alumni association, even functioning as assistant Scout Master and producing Mass wine for the priests in Nepal. He served as minister and superior of the Jesuit community. In 1974, he moved to St. Xavier’s, the larger high school near the center of the city, where for 10 years he taught while also taking on various jobs, as minister, treasurer, and rector of the community and, for five years, as first overall superior of all the Jesuits working in Nepal. He took on multiple projects as the Jesuits tried to meet the needs of a growing Catholic community in a society where, technically, they were forbidden to make converts, among them setting up a residence for young men thinking of entering the Society. Several years later, he returned to the boarding school at Godavari as superior of the community.
In 1993-1994, feeling some burnout and a need for renewal, he took a sabbatical back in the States, helping with parish work at St. Xavier Church in Cincinnati, and with retreats at the spirituality center at Milford. But the most significant experience of that year was joining a group of Vincentians he had first encountered in Nepal in giving charismatic healing retreats around the country. When he returned to Kathmandu, he lived at the high school in the city but shifted his focus from the schools to retreats and spiritual direction. He also began to think about the common expectation that expatriate Jesuits like him would eventually return to their provinces of origin. A conversation developed with his superiors. Praying for guidance, he increasingly felt peace when he thought about the New England Province. As a result, in 1997, Fr. Dressman returned to the States and worked at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Storrs, Connecticut from 1997 to 2007. In 2001, he transcribed to the New England Province.
He moved to Campion Center in 2007, where he took on the job of community treasurer and did occasional parish ministry. His health declined over the next few years and he died peacefully on Dec. 18, 2014.